Monday, March 21, 2016

In Which I Review Once Upon a Time (5x14)

Why do I feel as though all this has happened before and all this will happen again? Do you all say so? Am I blatantly paraphrasing Battlestar Galactica because Aaron Douglas appeared in this week's episode "Devil's Due"? The first two questions have no answers; the third is an obvious yes and a rather low hanging fruit. Readers, prepare yourselves for something shocking: I liked this episode. Well, I tentatively liked it. There were a lot of weird moments and odd plotting and, frankly, some things that were inserted only to serve has huge swaths of exposition, but Rumple episodes tend to be, on the whole, better than all others. Rumple, even when he's slimy and sleazy and devious, is dynamic; he's like Hades in that way (and how great was their face-off?) Whether Rumple is the scared cripple hoping for a better life for his son, trying to hold his happiness together by hook or crook (pun not intended), or whether he's our immaculately dressed shop owner, looking to justify his ends by any means necessary, there's no denying that Rumple is a powerhouse to watch. I don't know that there was a specific theme to this episode; like every episode so far, it operates under the guise of unfinished business--and with Rumple and Milah (with a side of Emma, Neal and Hook) the history of that unfinished business is certainly weighted, perhaps more so than any other story in the history of this show, even Regina and Snow's. The story of Rumple and Milah and Baby Bae is how the universe of OUAT began--a mother ran away, a father tried to protect his son, and his son vanished. All other stories stem from this one point in the history of the fictional universe. To bring it all back up and revisit it makes for a meaty and juicy hour; one I was, frankly, glad to watch. Now if only we could uncanonize DarkHeart sex and the Rumbelle baby. Grab your favorite fur coat (which may or may not be Bambi's dead iconic mother) and let's go!  

Let's Make A Deal

Rumple's story has always been that of a father looking for his lost boy. Often times, when read as an archetype, Rumple is labeled as the Trickster or other crafty devil type figure. He has a penchant for deals, for manipulation, for knowing just what to say and what to do in order to get the other party to agree, readily, to his terms. They take out their quills, sign in proverbial blood and Rumple gets one step closer to his end game, never mind how it might affect those around him. That's all in keeping with the sly fox character of say Loki or Anansi. But where Rumple differs, where the archetype has been subverted or, at the very least, humanized, is that Rumple's deals all have a human factor: his son, Baelfire. In the past, Rumple very rarely made deals that served only his ego or for only malicious or cruel reasons. He makes them (consequences be damned) to get him one step closer to his son. Every step down his long, long, long path is to Baelfire. That was such an integral part of his story in the very beginning; you could watch Rumple perform feats of magic that would amaze and horrify you, but it was all done in the name of parental love, and you had to stop and ask yourself: what wouldn't a parent do to find their lost child? You can revile him if you wish; Rumple's skin is tougher than he gives himself credit for, but it was undeniably human and that's what made him such a fascinating character study. It's really nice, then, when the show revisits those threads of the Father (capital letter cause we're in the Cosmic Realm now) looking for his Lost Son. More often than not lately, the flashbacks distance Rumple from the search for Baelfire or at least put it on the periphery, making it about magic or power and the lust and greed Rumple has for both. It forgets (shockingly) the heart of the narrative. But in this week's flashback, and even into the present day, it re-centers the story on a father who would move heaven and earth and make all sorts of very (very) poor life choices in order to save his child. Baelfire plays little role here; he's far to young to have a meaningful part to play. What does play a role, though, is Rumple's desire to do anything (including murder, though he stops short) to save Bae, and yes this includes a soul crushing deal, agreeing to give up his second born child should he have one, something he apparently took considerable measures to prevent. There's something deeply sad about Rumple giving up the happiness of more children in order to protect his firstborn, but it's also the root of his story. For Baelfire, Rumple would destroy the entire world and everyone in it; so what's a marriage, a wife, or an unborn second child to him? Selfish, impulsive, cowardly, but ultimately human. That's Rumple. Ask yourself: what wouldn't you do if you were Rumple?

And then there's Milah. This will likely come as no shock to anyone, but I've never liked Milah's character at all. To me, she's the total opposite of someone like Emma and Snow; she's the mother who left and never came back. While it was nice to hear her talk about how selfish she was back in the day, when she ran off with Hook because of her misery, it doesn't change the fact that she did run off and her motives behind it were totally terrible. At least, they were until the slight retcon of the night. Rumple removes the element of choice from Milah's small life. He decides for her that they are not going to have anymore children and that's that; she gets no say in her own body and marriage and life and so, like we know Milah is wont to do, she goes and buries her pain in drink at the tavern, apparently hoping to meet a future one handed pirate who also has a drinking problem. The issue here is that it overturns an interesting perspective on motherhood that the show has maintained with regards to Milah for three years. The show has a somewhat ugly (but sometimes beautiful) tendency to uphold motherhood as a route to salvation, the end all, be all for women everywhere. If you're evil, just get a baby and suddenly all your problems of an ethical and moral nature are solved. It makes Madonnas out of everyone and ignores those rather complicated questions of what it means to be a villain or even just a person (and frankly is overtly misogynistic). With Milah, the show had a nice balance between the good mothers (Emma, Snow and, in the long run, Regina) and the bad mothers (Milah herself). Bad mothers put their own desires first and abandon their children, never returning. This is a rather nice contrast to Emma who gave up her child in order to give baby Henry his best chance, but later returned and didn't shirk from responsibilities and, eventually, love when Henry came a'knocking. It was nice to know that, back then, OUAT didn't believe that all mothers were paragons of virtue who could be saved and fulfilled through the miracle of childbirth. Looks like, with Rumple's deal making, that is long gone and suddenly all of Milah's horrible choices that used to rest on her and Hook's (granted to a much lesser extent in his case) shoulders now reside on Rumple's and Rumple's alone. Not the wisest choice when we consider the history of the show to cast Rumple as an ultimately human figure, if one with questionable judgment.

We'll Laugh Ourselves Silly One Day

Yes, I'm using a Rumple quote because, let's face it, the conversation between Rumple, Milah and Emma was the single best exchange on this show in two years. In the present day, we once again have Rumple doing what he feels is best for his child. Now the caveat here is that it's not Nealfire, but Baby Rumbelle (which is a horrifyingly bad narrative choice given that the conception of said offspring was done with the the famous OUAT-wonky-consent at the end of last arc, but since it's officially canon, we gotta work with it). In the past, Rumple made a bad deal but believed he could out maneuver it, self assured that it would never come to pass since he and Milah were clearly on the outs and he would sire no more children. The deal might have left a bad taste in everyone's mouth but it did stop Rumple from killing a poor man (but it's hard to kill a Cylon so Rumple's immortal soul was probably okay in the long run). In the present, the deal made between Hades and Rumple left more than a bitter taste in our mouths. There is a narrative through point with Rumple that he does give people the option of choice, even if it's heavily clouded; he carefully manipulates each and every situation so that it comes out in his favor (at least the odds are stacked in favor for him) but he does present the person on the other side of the negotiation table has having the ability to walk away; he makes Regina a monster, but she chooses to walk into the woods after Daniel comes back wrong and start pulling hearts. In this week's episode, Rumple continues to show his more devious side by removing the element of choice. He more or less took away Belle's choice when he failed to give her the full story of how he's the Dark One again before engaging in the horizontal hustle; he took away Milah's choice in the past when he decided for her that they'd never have more children to protect Baelfire; and in the present day, Rumple once again robs Milah of her choice to conclude her business and move on and find peace. Instead, he punts her into a vat of Kool-Aid with some sad sacks of souls. Well done, Rumple. But it does beg the question, is that what true villainy is? Is true villainy taking away someone's ability to chose their own fate and destiny? It might sound odd coming from me, Ms. Rape Culture and Feminism, but not entirely. Rumple took away Emma's ability to chose her own destiny, didn't he? He decided, without consulting her or her parents, that she would be the Savior for his curse, to find his son. I'm not sure that's a fate anyone wants (even Jesus begged his Father to take this cup from him). For her entire life, Emma was alone, occasionally spouting magic from her fingertips, something she feared and tried to hide away, because Rumple made her that way. He did not ask, he did not bargain. He simply acted. Now, you can argue (and goodness knows that I have) that every step Emma takes after she enters Storybrooke is her acceptance of that fate and that, in the end, she very much embraces it and realizes that this is best possible version of herself (hero journey marker: unlocked!). I think villainy, true villainy, is far more complicated but the element of taking away the ability to make choices is certainly a large part of it. In that regard, both Rumple and Hades have some element of the true villainy in them (and thus far, there's no sympathy to be had from Hades). But so do all the other characters who have made choices for what they feel is best for someone else without the other persons say so--Snow telling Cora about Daniel, for example. And isn't that one of the hearts of OUAT? That villainy and heroism are far more nuanced and complex than straight white hat and black hat? This week felt like a return to the far more complicated questions the show used to ask. And that is worth something; it's worth, at the very least, a round of applause from your trusty blogger.

Miscellaneous Notes on Devil's Due

--"You were with my son and former lover?!" The meeting and interaction between Milah and Emma was perfect, even if it came to nothing and Emma dropped it all in five seconds. It was worth it to be vindicated that Emma knew nothing of the Milah/Bae/Hook connection.

--Cruella is wearing the fur of Bambi's iconic dead mother. I love her.

--#Hope is contraband in the Underworld.

--Actual note I took while watching: "Hades, we've talked about the hair."

--"Tell him hello from his papa."

--The Rumple and Hades moments were spot on. Those two are forces to be reckoned with and I'd like to see more of that please and thank you.

--The gibberish spoken in the apartment scene between Rumple and Emma would rival the gibberish spoken on Under the Dome.

--Milah and Hook meeting at the tavern years before the Crocodile scene was utterly pointless.

--"We're even. For now." Oh for the love of...Hook, shut up. Did you learn nothing? Do we have to keep doing this whole revenge plot thing? Didn't he learn anything from being sucked into the darkness and realizing how much of a draw it has over him?

--Yeah, I have no comment on those three graves.

--Not one Battlestar Galactica reference? Shame on you, Jane Espenson.


  1. I dunno, I just feel really bad for Belle. Rumbelle had good times in the past, but it's high time this ship sank for good. This is a guy who murdered his first wife/mother of his child twice, is screwing his first son over even after his death, and screwed his new son over before he was even born. Belle and said child deserve better. (And as funny as the Emma-Milah-Rumple exchange was, the whole "torrid affair and scandalous teen pregnancy" thing was so gross. What is with the casual misogyny the male baddies in this show display? I think Isaac the Author was the only exception here.)

    1. I very much agree that Belle deserves better than this tawdry, soap opera story line with a guy who never seems to change. But, the bigger problem, at least for me, is that while it's not fair, it's also pretty expected since Belle isn't a character; she's a prop. She's a prop for Rumple and the only meaningful development she gets is through Rumbelle. I'm not at all surprised the writers wrote in a pregnancy for her because she's simply a prop through which they explore Rumple's character.

      Thanks for reading!